On Wednesday, employees of The Billings Gazette newsroom received two emails from management hoping to weaken our support for unionizing.
Anti-union campaigns often rely on the same distorted ideas from company to company, and newsroom to newsroom, and the letters sent Wednesday bore out that predictable messaging.
Gazette employees were told that forming a union would “drive a wedge” between them and local management, complicate workplace relationships and require all decisions and disputes to be funneled through some new outside entity, or third party.
In reality, there is no third party. When The Montana News Guild members vote to unionize in the coming weeks, we will do so knowing we’ll pay dues to the Denver News Guild, which will in turn provide legal and organizational support to us while we negotiate with the company. All decisions and priorities for the bargaining unit (the group of unionized Gazette employees) will be made by the members of the unit. We will continue to work hard every day under the direction of the same editors who currently oversee us and address editorial disagreements the way we always have.
Every union-eligible employee in the newsroom is approaching this process in good faith. We have no intention of wasting our energy or capital filing petty grievances, as one of the letters suggests.
The print news industry was in trouble before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and is now several weeks into a deep economic recession. Every Billings Gazette employee — both union-eligible and management, both on the news side and on the advertising side — recognizes this basic fact.
Those of us pushing to unionize have no delusions, as one of the letters suggests, that doing so will miraculously solve those same long-standing, structural problems we are all so familiar with, which Lee Enterprises management itself cites when announcing cuts to staff or the print product. Classified ads moved to free online platforms, lucrative pre-print inserts died out as big box stores shuttered, and the number of people who pay to pick up a copy of the paper on their front stoop each morning drops every year. No publication is immune, and attempting to scapegoat 21 hardworking newsroom employees planning to unionize with the future financial woes of the company is absurd.
Finally, it’s frustrating to see some resort to naked scare tactics in an effort to deter unionization. Violence is indeed a part of labor history but not a part of its present.
In addition, one of our close readers notes that a sentence used in one of the management letters bears a close resemblance to the phrasing on a Wikipedia page. The letter notes that the editor left the San Francisco Examiner before a strike took place in 1994, but that during it, “…a nonunion newspaper delivery driver suffered a fractured skull when he was hit with a lead pipe, and a Teamster driver was electrocuted scaling a power pole.” On Wednesday, the Wikipedia page for the strike read, “…and one non-union driver was hit on the head with a lead pipe, suffering a fractured skull. One teamster driver was killed by electricity when scaling a power pole.” We respect our colleagues and higher-ups but are concerned about both the content and the phrasing of this message.
The Billings Gazette is the largest daily newspaper in Montana and has long been one of the company’s profitable operations. Its union-eligible news employees have put thought and care into their work and believe unionizing is a step in the right direction.
We look forward to joining the ranks of some of the best daily news workers in the country who are unionized, including staff at The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Washington Post, as well as at smaller outlets like the Casper Star-Tribune, The Omaha World-Herald and The Southern Illinoisan.
The Organizing Committee of The Montana News Guild
Juliana Sukut, Rob Rogers, Victor Flores, Brett French and Phoebe Tollefson
Download or read the management emails here: